For several years now, LSU system officials have argued for the importance of strong taxpayer support of LSU. But LSU system officials lose credibility in promoting the public importance of their mission when they treat the administration of LSU as a private affair. That’s the stance that LSU system officials have taken in refusing to release emails and documents related to budget cuts for the public hospitals under LSU’s control. In doing so, they are apparently acting in lock step with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, which has made government secrecy a standard operating practice.
The Advocate requested the documents last month, and LSU officials rejected the request, invoking a “deliberative process privilege” to keep the records secret. That’s a legal term describing the process that officials use to make decisions.
Taxpayers footing the bill for public institutions should get a clear view of how decisions involving the use of pubic resources are being made. Instead, LSU has embraced a frequently used tactic of Jindal’s administration, using the dubious principle of deliberative process to keep the public in the dark. LSU is apparently doing so under pressure from the Governor’s Office. After a similar request for records regarding hospital business was made by another party earlier this year, Shelby McKenzie, who is acting as the LSU system’s general counsel, sent a letter to LSU system interim President William Jenkins advising that the documents would not be released. In his Aug. 16 letter to Jenkins, McKenzie mentions that Jindal’s executive counsel, Liz Murrill, had asked LSU to shield documents using the deliberative process argument “where appropriate, in response to public records requests.” Murrill’s directive seems to contradict claims by Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin that the Governor’s Office had nothing to do with LSU’s decision to deny The Advocate’s subsequent request for records.
Even if a deliberative process exemption makes the withholding of these records legal — which we don’t think is the case — nothing in state law requires LSU officials to keep these records secret. LSU’s secrecy is a choice, one which neglects the public interest for the sake of political expediency.
The changes being considered for LSU’s public hospitals could affect not only how low-income patients are treated, but how a sizeable number of Louisiana’s future doctors are trained, potentially affecting every man, woman and child in Louisiana.
Recently, the LSU Board of Supervisors approved a plan to cut more than $150 million from the operations of seven Louisiana hospitals. The plan calls for firing nearly 1,500 employees, drastically reducing patient beds and hospital services, changing medical education programs and relying much more on the private health care sector for services. Earlier this year, a different set of LSU officials released records connected with the first round of budget cuts for Louisiana’s public hospitals. Perhaps not coincidentally, two key players in that earlier round of budget cuts — then-LSU System Vice President Fred Cerise and LSU System General Counsel Raymond Lamonica — were replaced.
The records revealed that Alan Levine, who once worked for Jindal as head of the state Department of Health and Hospitals and is now involved with a private management firm that runs medical school hospitals in other states, had been working as an unpaid consultant on the challenges faced by LSU’s public hospitals.
Jenkins said that Levine’s firm is among other private companies that have been involved in conversations with LSU officials about helping to manage hospitals. Cynics might wonder if this relationship gives Levine’s company a decided advantage in securing business from the state.
The best way to address such questions — and the many others involving Louisiana’s public hospitals — is transparency regarding how decisions regarding management of those hospitals are being made.
The current position of LSU officials makes it look like they have something to hide.